Savvy Saturday – Stunt Fighting

Today I got to watch people pretend to punch and kick each other for three hours. It was delightful. I took lots of notes.

Jessie_graff_stuntsI hadn’t planned on doing research for my writing today when I went to campus; I had planned on cleaning my office, working on a paper, and categorizing citations on my computer. But when I saw that a Hollywood stuntwoman and alumna of the university (Jessie Graff, credits include Live Free or Die Hard and X-Men: First Class) was going to be giving a “master class” this afternoon in the theater department – “Free and open to the public!” – I figured that the citations could wait. Even though I’m not writing anything right now either involving martial arts or the stunt profession, learning about both of them in the context of a workshop class was a fantastic opportunity.

In my experience with martial arts and rapier, the instruction is aimed at giving individuals a deep knowledge of the sport. History, proper mindset, technique, solid footwork and grounding, all is important before you start getting to the parts that “look good” to an audience. A three-hour theater workshop in stunt fighting, however, is completely different. There, it’s all about what your actions look like. In other words, perfect for a novelist. The class also moved quickly: the instructor took the class through basic punches, rolls, and kicks, as well as how to “properly” respond to them.

“To learn how to properly react to being hit in the side of the face,” Graff said, “place your hand on your chin, push your head to one side, and let it go limp.” Note how your head swivels, but it doesn’t lean to one side. Further, it doesn’t just turn and stay there as if you’re purposefully looking over your shoulder. Instead, it “bounces” slightly, rebounding/jiggling in reaction to the sharp movement. (Try it and you’ll see what I mean.) Graff said that she likes to think of the reaction in a “1-2-3” pattern – side, forward, side, all happening very quickly. If you’ve been “hit” especially hard, blow air into your mouth, inflating your cheeks and exhaling quickly.

Camera angles are also a much larger part of stunt fighting than I had ever thought about before. Good stunt doubles and actors will see where the camera is pointed, draw a line from the camera to the actor’s face, and know from that both what height to hit at and when the actor should respond to the hit. For instance, the instructor said that she once had to throw her punches at triceps height for an actor she was supposed to be hitting in the face, because the camera was shooting up from the level of their feet. A bit strange, she said, to be aiming punches at his arm and having his head respond to her “blows.”

Being ten feet away from a skilled stuntwoman, watching her demonstrate attacks and blocks over and over again, was a fantastic experience for me as a writer. While I don’t need to be able to do the things that fighters can, I do need to be able to write them in a way that others can picture them. In a way, then, writing is like being a stunt person. You don’t need to be able to actually throw a punch, you just need to be able to fake it well enough that the people who are enjoying the entertainment you produce think it’s real.

With that in mind, here are some mechanics I learned today about how various types of attacks and blocks work. These aren’t going to give you enough detail to become the next superhero, but they should help you write about one.


How to stand like a fighter:

–          Always shift, and stay on the balls of your feet. Don’t let your heels touch the ground.

–          Your feet should be shoulder width apart, with your off-foot (left, if you’re right handed) forward and your primary foot at between a ninety degree and forty-five degree angle.

–          Keep your elbows in and your hands up in closed fists, with your thumbs on the outside of your fists.

–          Keep a straight line going from your arms up the back of your hands: if you want to practice, you can rubber-band a chopstick to the back of your hand and your wrist. If you let this get sloppy, you can break your hand if you hit wrong.

–          Stay low: imagine that you have a bar placed over the top of your head, and if you stand up, you’ll smack into it.


How to block a punch

–          The block comes from your hip, shoulder, and arm. If someone punches toward you, twist your hip and shoulder so that you’re almost showing your back to the attacker. This should result in your back heel lifting off the floor.

–          At the same time, lift your elbow up against your ear, so that your hand is behind your shoulder. This is almost a “combing your hair” type of motion.

–          Keep your arm tight against your head; this presents a flat surface (that isn’t your head) to the attacker.

–          During all of this, keep looking at the person you’re fighting so you don’t miss anything that happens.


How to throw a punch

–          The motion of your hip initiates the movement, whether you’re throwing a jab, cross, or hook.

–          Keep your muscles taut all the time.

–          If you’re jabbing, turn your body to the right as you punch with your left. It’s opposite for a cross.

–          Keep your arms straight, but slightly bent: don’t hyper-extend your arms or you’ll hurt yourself.

–          For a hook punch: turn your hips, extend your arm, then come in from the side. All of this should be on one horizontal plane: no punching upward or downward.


How to duck a hook punch:

–          Keep your eyes on your opponent

–          Bend your entire upper body forward in a u-shaped motion toward the direction of the punch, by twisting your hips. (So if the person is swinging with his right, you duck from your right to your left and come up again.)

–          This presents the small of your back as the target, rather than your head.

–          Keep your fists by your face to block.


How to roll into a fighting stance:

–          Imagine a line that goes from your right pinky down your arm, then across your back in a diagonal line to your left hip and down your left ankle. This is how you land in a roll to be able to come up fighting.

–          Once your back is on the ground, tuck your left foot behind your right knee, in the shape of a four. This allows you to push up on your right leg and be in fighting position.

–          Once you know what you’re doing, you can do things like grab a sword on the ground as you go into a roll, then come up out of it holding the sword and ready to fight.


Two other ways of using rolls:

  1. Dive roll. In this roll, Person 1 flips Person 2 over Person 1’s shoulder. Person 2 goes into a roll and comes up fighting. To do this: Person 1 is standing in front of Person 2, facing the same direction. Person 1 holds the wrist of Person 2 with his left hand across his body, and reaches behind him to grab Person 2’s shoulder with his right hand. Using his hips, Person 1 throws Person 2 forward and into a roll.
  2. Back roll. In this roll, Person 1 is facing Person 2. Person 1 grabs Person 2’s shirt and falls backward on purpose, with his left leg straight and his right leg bent to his chest. As Person 1 falls, he places his right foot on Person 2’s lower abdomen and pushes, sending Person 2 flying over Person 1’s head and onto the ground. Person 2 lands in a roll.

In addition to learning this information, I had a blast watching the theater students get into the acting portion of the workshop. From the right angle, you could almost believe that these students were actually knocking each other silly. And then one or the other of them would laugh and the spell would be broken. All in all, it was a remarkable afternoon: both enjoyable for its own sake, and hopefully profitable for later writing. A perfect way to celebrate being done with the semester.



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